Speculation (Channel 28, 1969)
This evening it gives me the greatest pleasure to turn the tables on my distinguished guest and say, "Keith Berwick Presents Alfred Hitchcock". Mr Hitchcock, in almost five decades as a film maker, I think you're one of the few whose name has taken on a veritable adjectival significance. So, I'm interested in how you, yourself, would style the Hitchcockian film – what is a Hitchcockian film?
- Well, most people get the impression that it's necessarily a film which would be called a "thriller" or a "suspense film" and sometimes, mistakenly, it's referred to as a "mystery film". Now that's one department that I do not indulge in at all.
You leave to Agatha Christie and her film making [indistinct]?
- Yes, because a specific reason is there's a great confusion between the word "mystery" and "suspense". Mystery means withholding information from an audience, whereas suspense means giving them information. Otherwise, if they don't have the information, they have nothing to be suspended about! So, when you say, "What is the Hitchcock thing?" it can be sometimes an oblique form of approach to a given situation. Another aspect is the effort to avoid the cliché.
And yet you often use very ordinary commonplace kinds of situations to achieve your effects.
- That is true. But, you see, the use of the ordinary thing, to me, heightens and sometimes the extraordinary doesn't work with me. For example, I once made a movie called North by Northwest and it called for a man – Cary Grant – to... I suppose in gangster parlance would be referred to as being "put on the spot".
- So, naturally, what is being put on the spot? Well, now the convention and the unusual is to place him on the corner of the street under a streetlamp, the cobbles washed by the recent rain – it's night, of course, because there's a pool of light in which to stand – and then they cut to the black cat slithering along the wall and maybe a face peering through curtains...
Cliché, cliché, cliché!
- ...so, I decided, I would avoid all those things and go for the very ordinary and have him get off a bus on a road where there were no houses, no trees, nothing except...
- ...in broad sunlight, you see, which, in its way you can describe as being very ordinary.
And yet, extraordinary in that it was absurd – that is, to say, Cary Grant was then being harassed and threatened by a crop-dusting plane and there were no crops.
- That's the point. You see, the first essential to get the ordinary mixed up with the extraordinary, is that you have prairie-like land around you and a man in a business suit. You see, there is your immediate counterpoint.
That's marvellous! Reminds me of Calvin Coolidge, when he was campaigning for the presidency and he went off and put on Indian headdress and a business suit. Of course, he did it unwittingly and you're doing it intentionally!
- Now, the next question was, if it's so ordinary as this, now you begin to gradually drift into the extraordinary because you bring up the question, naturally, there's a plane dusting crops where there are no crops? So, immediately, your audience are beginning to sit up. Then, of course, it develops – it chases the man.
- But then comes the "must" – this is a typical Hitchcock thing – the "must" is that you cannot a crop-duster in a scene without it dust crops. In other words, the background or the elements contained in this scene, must be used. So, where does Cary run? Into a cornfield and is dusted out. Merely to have a crop-duster and call it a "crop-duster" and have it shoot [at Cary Grant] is not enough.
- In the same film, for example, Cary Grant gets trapped in an auction gallery – can't get out, surrounded. How does he get out? By bidding! In other words, the shot must be used; it must be an important part of the thing.
Of course, one vital ingredient in all of this is anxiety. I think my favourite characterisation of you is Truffaut's and he says that you belong among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Poe. Now, you are, of course, quite literally an artist – this is really your beginning, isn't it?
- In so far as film is concerned, I am a purist.
You are a purist, but I'm thinking also of the way in which you set up scenes. Do you not visualise this and then actually sketch it out?
- Oh, yes, it can be done. The creative process is always the best. If I had my way, the moment the film was finished, prepared, visualised, I would prefer not to make it. Well, that doesn't really make sense because, after all, somebody once said: a play has not been written – finally written – until it's performed before an audience. It is incomplete. Merely to write it and put it down, even to cast it, is not enough. The complete process must be in front of an audience.
Now this, I think, introduces a very important kind of vein, because one of the distinguishing features of the Hitchcock career is this intimate kind of collaboration with the audience that I associate with you. Your notion of a successful film is one which is popular, is it not?
- Oh definitely.
...and one in which you engage in a kind a play with the audience?
- Well, let me put it this way, it's a greater challenge. I'm not self-indulgent, except only in terms of the manner and style of telling, with the ultimate aim of presenting it to an audience. Now, the most important thing to me is not content – I'm not interested in photographing content – I'm interesting in using film, using the visual, and out of that, to create an emotion in an audience.
- Sometimes, one is often criticised, but the criticism is always on the basis of the content. Then, maybe, they go and see the film a couple of times more and they [say], "We saw things in it we never saw before."
- I remember, when I made that movie Psycho, which was a carefully designed movie – it was designed to terrorise an audience, but only in their mind. Give them a good sample – a murder in the shower – and, as the film proceeds, gradually reduce the violence on the screen. But left the possibility of it remain in the mind of the audience. So there was a complete transference from the screen to the audience and, as the film went on, there was practically no violence at all... hardly any.
So the film image, then, is understand and is designed to stimulate the imagination of the audience so that the audience becomes collaborator.
- That is right. I mean, after all, the mere fact that the murder in the shower is a thing of horror is, of course to me, a thing of humour. You can't do this kind of thing that we're talking about now without a great sense of humour, because you are imagining, when you lay these things out, the "oohs" and "aahs" and the stifled screams in an audience which can only induce a sense of fun, to me. But, of course, most people don't realised that – they think one's an ogre, almost, for indulging in this kind of thing. For example, when I did this scene in the shower, cinematically, there wasn't a single shot of a knife touching a body anywhere. It was completely illusional.
This notion of the sense of humour, I think of as intrinsic in Hitchcock and Hitchcock films – and Hitchcock the person – although I'm not sure that's a meaningful distinction between Hitchcock the filmmaker and Hitchcock anything else. Isn't the [indistinct] Hitchcock the filmmaker?
- Oh yes, no question, for sure.
You are a celebrated practical joker, in and out of film, are you not?
- Yes, oh yes, I've indulged in that form of fun. But in this particular case, being a practical joker does spill over into the film because you are – what's the old fashioned expression? – laughing up your sleeve, as it were.
And what does this suggest of your attitude toward the audience. Is it a matter of a contest with the audience? Does it express contempt for the audience or admiration for the audience's perceptiveness?
- No, I don't think it's a contempt. In other words, the approach to the audience is not a negative one. For example, if you go into the area of practical joking, I once decided, I thought quite rightly, to have a birthday party for about 40 people for my wife and I decided that all these parties that people have are all wrong. To sit six people at a table, the whole thing becomes... you turn your house into a restaurant. There's no exchange with the people, a group get-together and they might just as well not be in your house. So I decided to get a very large round table that holds 44 people and I did it by renting TV tables and I put them into a huge circle – black tables and rented white chairs. We had it in the garden, I laid down some grass mat so that the damp of the evening wouldn't come through. But, there was one thing I did which was not expected – the placecards contained Christian names, but not one Christian name matched with any of the guests.
What was the outcome? Where did people...
- Well, the outcome was that people gradually walked around, with a sort of side-glance to look very casual, and the fun, to me, was watching them make the complete circle.
Hitchcock always does the unexpected, I suppose that's the norm of Hitchcock.
- The unexpected is the expected.
I'm reminded of your own statement that you practise absurdity religiously, or a statement to that effect. What I want to ask here is really quite a serious question, namely the extent to which you are a religious filmmaker. That is, is it important that you were brought up a Catholic, that you were educated in Jesuit schools? Is this an important index to the Hitchcock work?
- Only in-so-far as creating, within me, a fear that I have transferred to an audience.
Which really states the question, rather better than I could have done, because I was leading to the question: the extent to which your whole work is autobiographical – not obviously literally, but figuratively – and you're really answering the question, are you not, saying that it is?
- That's true, yes.
This intimate collaboration with the audience is one that you're well qualified for by virtue of your own fears. Are we to regard your work then as Hitchcock's five-decade psychoanalysis?
- Well, I think that anything that would be obviously fearful to me gets transferred in a form of humour, to create the fear in the audience. I'm unloading, in other words, do you see?
...a way of syphoning off...
- ...my fears and give it to them.
Do you think that's altogether fair?!
- If they pay the right money, why not!
I'm always interesting the wellsprings, the sources of anxiety and suspense for you. I'm interested, for example, that children can be the source of tremendous anxiety and horror and fear. Birds can be antagonistic.
- Let's take the very beginnings. After all, I have said before, a mother has in her arms a three-month-old baby and, for some inexplicable reason and I don't know why, she goes "BOO!" to the baby, immediately causing the baby to get hiccups and the child nearly cries and doesn't – it begins to laugh and the mother seems very pleased at what she's achieved. Now that's the very beginning: what prompts a mother to create this element of fear in a three-month-old baby, I don't know.
- Later on, when the child gets a little older and does something wrong, it's threatened with the bogeyman. Then it gets a little older and gets to the age of five or six, and goes on a swing. And what does it do? It goes higher and higher, until it scares itself by going too high and stops. And so on, until we now come to the midway in the fairground, where they pay money to go into the haunted house and come out giggling. They pay money to go on the rollercoaster and scream with fear as it takes the big dip. Imagine the fine margin of those screams if that went off the rails.
The most horrifying stories, in my experience, are fairy tales.
- No question. After all, they were written by a man named "Grimm"! But, you see, children, they talk about the effect on children. After all, you have Red Riding Hood, which is cannibalism. Then you have Hansel and Gretel pushing the old woman into the oven. There are so many examples of children's stories... I remember, there used to be a very famous English artist, I don't know if you ever encountered him, called Arthur Rackham...
- ...there were two: there was Rackham and Edmund Dulac. They were illustrators but very, very fine draughtsmen and I remember these children's books were illustrated so that they would have trees – gnarled trees – and if you look carefully, a face would emerge from the wood. These were all for the benefit of children. The whole approach in the Hans Andersson and the Grimm was to scare the children.
You say "for the benefit of the children", do you really think it is? You must have thought about it.
- Well, they benefit, after all. Why does a child receive a fairy story book? As a present. That must be of benefit. Of course, you see, sometimes these things go wrong. We talk about violence on the screen and its effect on young minds and so forth. But, I had a letter once, about a year ago... I did buy the rights to a play of Sir James Barrie who of course, as you know, wrote "Peter Pan". Barrie was shocked one day, soon after the play "Peter Pan" had gone on, from a woman who said to him, in the letter, "you fiend, my five-year-old child is dead, trying to jump through the window like Peter Pan". So, you see, even the most innocuous things...
- But look how, among children, one little girl with approach the back of another girl, very stealthily and go "BOO!" – the same as the little baby. Now they're grown up and they're doing it to each other, instead of the mother doing it. The other child jumps and then there's a giggle all round. So, you see, the fear thing is almost a psychological factor among all people.
Now, another of your concerns is, of course, death. Is this really incorporated within the framework of fear? What sort of place do you assign to death in your own films? Is this the necrophiliac kind of enthusiasm?
- No, I don't think so, because it isn't the actual death itself. If you have your hero on the run, say from some villains, it's the fear of his death. The fear of it, rather than the fact of it.
I'm thinking of The Trouble with Harry, for example.
- Well, that's the trouble with Harry! That's typical English humour. Now the English, strangely enough, have always had an interest – both humorously and very, very definitely – on the side of crime. It's always been a fascinating subject. Not only are they interested in it, the litterateurs I'm taking about, whether you go back to Conan Doyle or, up-to-date, Agatha Christie or, as I knew her, Mrs Belloc Lowndes. Mrs Belloc Lowndes was a rather, sort of, cottage loaf – rather looked like Elsa Maxwell – and she was a very devout Catholic, rather a bit of a social snob, but she wrote the most horrifying murder stories.
- There seems to be a tremendous interest, on the part of the English, in this kind of thing, much more than any other country. You can't, in America – you can name them on hand – dash off Hammett, and one or two others... William Irish or MacDonald. Not only that, some of the big litterateur – John Galsworthy, or someone like that – would try their hand at it.
This isn't even to mention Shakespeare who was very much preoccupied with Richard III and so on.
- Absolutely. You see, the English, they do make – going back to The Trouble with Harry – they do make jokes about death. One of the most fascinating true stories I once heard is of the famous comedian, whose name was Harry Tate and he was killed by a piece of shrapnel during an air raid. At the cemetery, as the burial took place, naturally a good proportion of the mourners were fellow comedians. There was a younger one who couldn't resist... you know comedians are always on, if you understand what I mean – they've got to make some joke about something. Anyway, this young one nudged a very old one whose name was Charles Coborn – not the film [actor], but another old boy. He nudged him and whispered, "How old are you Charlie?" and the old boy said, "Oh, I'm 89." The young one says, "Hardly seems worthwhile going home, does it."
This reminds me of that story, which I'm sure you know, about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who were lifelong friends. When Lugosi died, Karloff was at the end of the long row of mourners who led up to view the body, and he went up and was heard to murmur, "Come on Bela, you're putting me on!" They were great practical jokers.
- Karloff was an Englishman, you see. He would understand that. The English always have made jokes about death.
If fear and death are two main ingredients, the third that comes to mind is your play with sex. Sex becomes a very important ingredient in your work. And yet a rather different form of sex from the kind of thing that we see on the skin flicks today. Of course you take national pride in English attitudes towards sex, do you not?
- To some degree, yes. Nudity, for the sake of it, would be like doing the obvious in other forms. In other words, it's a cliché again and there's no point in that.
Marylin Monroe never starred in a Hitchcock film.
- No, because, you see, a Marylin Monroe type would be so obvious to me that I, personally, would prefer the audience to discover the sex in a woman. Like in Grace Kelly, who [is] very beautiful but looks rather cool until she gets down to the business of sex. You get an extra dimension – by the revelation, you see.
So, it's something withheld. It's again this economy.
- It's withheld. It's the understatement again.
Do you think English women are the world champions at this sort of thing?
- I would think so or all the Northern European women. I think the further north you go – it must be climactic – seems to me that the Swedes and the Danes and the English and the north German women are extremely promiscuous. Then, the further south you go, the more – how shall we say – undemonstrative they become in terms of ultimately revealing themselves.
- For example, if you take a French woman, the French woman is not the Folies Bergère or the Crazy Horse or whatever it is, that's for tourists. The French girl is very protective. She may outwardly look sexy but it's the family, almost, who decide who she's going to marry. It's as old fashioned as that. Then you get further down into Italy where they're all sexy and bosomy, but I'm sure the average man going up to one would run screaming for mother.
So, you give the lie in this way to the notion, the myth as you would say, of the warm-blooded Latins?
- Cross the Mediterranean and the women aren't in evidence at all.
- I mean, not only that, I've been to dinner in a house in Marrakesh in Morocco where no woman is allowed to appear. So, you see, that's what I mean by the climate having something to do with it – they're completely withheld in the south and then, the further north you go, the more, erm... violent they may become, should you find yourself in some quiet corner with one.
To what extent, you're talking about women revealing themselves in all of the sense of that term, to what extent do you regard the audience, and perhaps yourself, as voyeuristic, as an audience of Peeping Toms?
- Well, they are. I hate to say it, but there's a definite – especially in these sex scenes that you're seeing today – there's a definite audience identification.
But you play on this, do you not, this is one of your devices for hooking your audience and absorbing them...
- ...Not to the extent of putting sex on the screen and transferring that to the audience. That I'm not interested in. It's too easy.
I'm thinking of some of the things that you've done that, even to me as a rank layman, are impressive cinematically because of the rigid limitations that you've imposed upon yourself. For example, Rear Window, which is one of my favourite Hitchcock films, in which you virtually never move outside of that room in which James Stewart is incarcerated in...
- ...And yet, all I can say about it is, it's one of the most cinematic films I've ever made. You see, people – especially technicians – are mistaken as to what is cinematic. First of all, the photography of people in dialogue is definitely nothing to do with the cinema whatsoever – it's purely an extension of the theatre. I've done it myself, I know, it doesn't relate. Photographing of westerns, galloping horses, it what it is – it's photography, but not necessarily cinematic.
- Whereas, in a picture like Rear Window, you have a man sitting at a window looking: the first piece of film a close-up, the second piece of film is what he sees, the third piece of film is his reaction. Now here, in rapid succession, are three piece of film put together, which is really what "pure cinema" is – the relative position of the pieces of film which creates an idea, like words in a sentence. Out of these three pieces of film an idea is born and an audience [will] react to that idea, from the pieces of film that they've seen.
- For example, I describe in my – remember I was telling you I did something for Encyclopaedia Britannica? Well, I describe this process a little more explicitly, I say, "Well, Mr Stewart is sitting there and he's looking out." Let us assume he sees a woman, nursing a baby. Now you cut back to him and his close-up, which is the third piece of film, and he smiles. Now, for example, we take away the middle piece of film – there are only three pieces: his look, what he sees and his reaction – and put a girl in a bikini. Now he's a dirty old man instead of being a benevolent gentleman. I think Pudovkin, the Russian...
And the audience is supplying this, again, this is...
- Oh, certainly, because it's a subjective treatment. You are putting the audience in the place of Stewart. They are verifying what he sees. When he looks out, by the constant cutting, backwards and forwards, the images build up – the images that he sees – and the audience verify the fact, because they're seeing it through his eyes.
- Now, the nearest form, I suppose, would be the novelist, describing this at great length, you see. But, with film of course, naturally, it's much more spontaneous than the novelists can do and with regard to the theatre, of course, it couldn't touch it at all.
So, whatever the source of a Hitchcock story, whether it's an original idea of yours or something that's evolved – you, and let's say, Joan Harrison or whatever – ultimately you are a film author, is that not true?
- That's the French expression: auteur. Yes. That is why, when I work with a writer, I work from the beginning, because I want the writer to be involved in the making of a film. It's not the writing of a film, it's the making of a film on paper. Like blueprints.
Which brings us back to your origins, in engineering and that sort of thing...
- Oh, yes, that all helped. I was a draughtsman in engineering and I studied art at the University of London, so I got a piece of each.
What about the ingredient of fantasy. It seems to me that much of the Hitchcock work is fantastic in the true literal sense of the term.
- It is fantasy. A picture like North by Northwest is pure fantasy, because it's supposed to be something about spying or something, but it's something that I don't bother about and I don't care about. In fact, I think I desaturated the concept of espionage in that film, because I have Cary Grant ask the head CIA man – played by Leo G. Carroll – "Well, what is it that he is after, this man [James] Mason?" The other man says, "Oh, well let's say he's an importer and exporter an exporter." "Well, what of?" "Oh, government secrets." And that's as far as one was prepared to go.
So, you're not prepared to acknowledge your paternity of the James Bond films?
- No, no – they are quite wild. They're overstated rather than understated.
Which brings us, by the way, to the "MacGuffin"...
- Well, we've just touched on the MacGuffin – the question "What are the spies after?" Well, in the days of Kipling, of course, it was the plans of the fort overlooking the Khyber Pass, that's what the spies were after. Then it went on to, in a more serious sense, you got the atom bomb spies and that was rather serious. But, generally speaking, the audience are not interested in this thing which we do call the MacGuffin – I'll explain the word afterwards – because they're more interested in the characters... the characters are worrying about it, because they running all over the place and chasing each other and killing each other, over this thing – the plans of the fort or the plan of the bomb or what have you. Or, as I had it in the picture Notorious, samples of uranium... a year before Hiroshima.
That's right – you anticipate the atomic bomb and thermonuclear energy.
- When I went out to visit Dr [Robert Andrews] Millikan at Caltech with the writer Ben Hecht, we said, "Dr Millikan, how big would an atom bomb be?" and then he spent an hour telling us how impossible the whole thing was. But, I was told afterwards that I was under surveillance by the FBI for three months.
A very suspicious type, yes!
- Obviously, but I was quite innocent in that. Anyway, going back to the name for this thing, whether it's the plans of a fort or the blueprints or whatever the information the spies are after, it did become so inconsequential to an audience – not to the characters – that we gave it a name, we called it the "MacGuffin". And the word comes from the fact that two men are sitting in a train, going from London to Scotland, and one says to the other "Excuse me, if you don't mind my asking, what's the package above your heard?" "Oh, that's a MacGuffin." "Well, if you don't mind my asking, what is a MacGuffin?" "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands." "Well, then that's no MacGuffin."
- So, it points up that it is a nothing. Nevertheless, you've got to have it in the film.
Yet, of course, one of your criticisms of many people whom you've worked with and who are students of your film, is that they become too preoccupied with the MacGuffin.
- Well, I can tell you that the producer of Notorious when he asked me "What were these Nazi's up to in South America?" I said "They're trying to get hold of samples of Uranium 235." "What's that?" I said, "It's the stuff they're going to make the atom bomb from." "What atom bomb? That's a bit wild to base a picture on that." So, I said, "Alright, if you don't like Uranium 235, we'll make it industrial diamonds." So, "no", he didn't believe it and he sold the whole property to another studio for a given sum and 50% of the profits.
- I was coming back on the [ship] Elizabeth and I met a producer who, apparently, had had this half-finished script between Ben Hecht and I submitted to him. He said, "How did you come on to the atom bomb, I've often been going to ask you, a year before Hiroshima? When we got that script we thought it was the craziest thing on which to base a picture." I said, "You made a mistake because the other man did."
- And finally, I met the first man again, two or three years afterwards at a cocktail party, and he said, "By the way, you should go to Germany and your name has become quite big there since Spellbound and Notorious. You know, those Germans are very smart – now that Uranium is out-of-date, they changed it to narcotics."
The interchangeability of MacGuffins again!
- But he lost 50% of the profits of the picture by thinking that the MacGuffin was what the film was about – it wasn't, it was about Cary Grant in love with Ingrid Bergman, helping her to go to bed with Claude Rains. That's all.
Which brings me really to another kind of question. Are there, as there surely are, favourite Hitchcock actors and actresses?
- Not really. Not in the general sense. There are favourite character men I've in the past, people like the marvellously understated Leo G. Carroll, who would measure the nod or turn of the head by fractions of an inch.
Well, I'm thinking now of Cary Grant, for one, James Stewart for another – they seem to be very much a part of your work – and I wonder, among other things, whether you regard them as more-or-less interchangeable?
- Yes, because, you see, you have to remember in order to get the best of the audience identification, your leading man in the adventure story, be it a fantasy or what-have-you... In order to get the audience involved, one has to take "every man". You see, if you notice, I've never made films about professional criminals or police or detectives, or that kind of thing. I've always taken "average man" and got him involved in extraordinary. That's how men like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart have been cast because they represent someone with whom the audience will identify and rather worry about.
Partly because they're amateurs in these extraordinary events...
- ...Sure, so are the audience, you see!
Reminds me of that great line when Chaplin is talking to Claire Bloom in a film and she's concerned about her lack of professionalism going on to do a performance and he says, "My dear, we're all amateurs." That's really what you're saying, isn't it?
- Sure, the way... the audience.
Speaking of favourite Hitchcockian actors and Hitchcockian performances, what about Hitchcock himself as an actor?
- Well, I must confess there's a certain amount of ham there.
You swing a lot of weight in your films.
- Yes. But, on the other hand, I make a little appearance – I always keep it down to the minimum, as I've often said, so as not to suffer the indignity of being an actor too long!
What is the ultimate in this... among all of your brief appearances, which began with The Lodger... have you appeared in every film since then?
- I think so, pretty well.
What is your favourite of all of these appearances, as an actor?
- The one I've never done!
The one yet to come? In the next film?
- I don't think it'll ever be done. I wanted to do a walk-by with a girl and talk to her [does deaf sign language] and she slaps my face!
That's a marvellous joke! I think my favourite, by the way, is the appearance that you make in the newspaper in Lifeboat.
- Well, that was a problem! I couldn't get in in any other way. No room for me there!
I mean, I'm sure it's one of the memorable moments in film, although I don't know that everybody who saw that film realises that there you are in a newspaper that...
- Yes, that's right. That was at a time when I was busy reducing, taking off a hundred pounds. I suppose in one's lifetime, one must have taken off at least six to seven hundred pounds.
That's terrible, that's frightening... I'm not altogether sure it's wise.
- Well, it comes back. You take it off, it comes back. I think it's a physiological fact, you know.
Although I must get your recipe for consumé, which I think is one of your...
- ...That's a good diet food, yes. No calories.
Are there favourite Hitchcock writers. You talked about this collaboration from the ground up in making a film rather than writing a screenplay.
- I would say they vary. Actually, the method I used to prefer way back in England, was to sit with a writer who was not necessarily a dialogue man but a writer who wrote, shall we say, action situations and so forth. And I would then end up with a complete, detailed outline of the whole picture. It would be very hard to read, because it doesn't contain any an abstraction of any kind. You don't write in, for example, "he wonders" – because you can't photograph "he wonders"!
No you can't. Although, I think if anybody could, you could.
- Well, you can't, because it's an unknown thing, you see. So this complete – you can call it a treatment, you can call it an outline, give it any name you will – if you're able to read it sufficiently, because you would need a great sense of the visual to do it, it would be rather like looking at the film with the sound turned off. That method, I haven't been able to apply in America because the problem is one of screen credits and so forth.
I'm thinking back to an earlier comment of yours, you styled yourself a purist – and to be sure, you are – but I wonder whether you wouldn't regard the ultimate in cinematic effectiveness [as] the silent film?
- The day that sound came in, film lost a tremendous lot. In the days of the silent film, when we used to use titles, there were three types of titles: there was a narrative title, of which the most famous was "came the dawn", there was the character title and the spoken title. The character title would be the moment a character came on screen he would be described.
- Well, the great aim in those days, by the purists, was to make a film with no titles at all. And it was once achieved in Germany with a Murnau film with [Emil] Jannings in the lead and it was called, in Germany Der Letzte Mann, known here as The Last Laugh. It was a story about a hotel doorman who get very, very old and was taken off the job as he couldn't handle the trunks and so forth and reduced to the toilet room with a white coat, and they took his resplendent uniform away. The whole theme of the thing was the German's respect for uniform. What he did was to steal the uniform and put it on to go home, so that his family and his neighbours would never know that he had suffered this indignity of being reduced to the attendant in the toilet. He used to hide it in the checkroom of the railroad station and, of course, the thing eventually broke out and so forth.
- But the film was made without a single title, made from beginning to end as a purely pictorial thing and it told its story just as much as today ballet tells its story, in its own way.
Again, symbol and the symbolic stimulus to the imagination, and so on, rather than words.
- So that, you see, when you get films made – I mean, they're still entertainment – but, if we're talking on the purer side of filmmaking, so many of them are really not films. They are extensions of the theatre, they are really photographs of people talking.
The thing that comes through to me, very strongly, in what you're saying here is the extent to which film can be a vehicle for dealing with the most profound psychological dilemmas, problems of our society. Which brings another question, because psychiatric and psychological themes have been characteristic of a number of your films – Psycho, I suppose one of the most striking of these and Spellbound. Are you accepted by the psychiatric and psychological communities – are they among your critics or among your enthusiasts?
- I've never heard from them!
But you do not have very high regard for those people you call "the plausibles", do you? For those people you regard as the logicians, those people, in other words, who criticise the fantastic element in your films.
- Well, to me, logic is dull. Very often though, we are forced to lay things out because the audiences ask sometimes difficult questions, just like a little boy who says to his father, "Why does thunder turn the milk sour?" and all he gets for his question is a cup on the side of the head and a "get out of my way!" So, you get that kind of application of logic.
- The point is, of course, if you boil things down, everything must be logical, then Hitchcock kind of goes out of the window. And there are complaints, consequently, about being too... you know, I've even heard some people say that doing a film like Topaz, which was a bestseller, and it deals with espionage during the [Cuban] missile crisis, where I'm not permitted, by the mere facts themselves, to deviate.
Well, you know, I'm thinking now of the extent of your preoccupation with film, the statement that struck me in the Truffaut transcript here, that you say "my love of film is far more important to me than any considerations of morality". That seems to be a very striking kind of statement and I wonder if you'd care to comment on it?
- Well, it comes back to the question that I have no views, either one way of the other, about content.
So, that this is a matter of you're being neutral in the presentation of your materials. One of the things that seems to me absent in most of your work is political commentary. You're not a political man though the medium of your films.
- No. I think politics on the screen has always been very dull. You know, there's never been a successful film about Abraham Lincoln with the public, or any president. Or, for that matter, very, very few political films... the only one I know that's had any appeal to an audience is Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but there, of course, you get your identification – not with the politicians but with the average man going into the lion's den of politicians.
This suggests an answer to a question that's always bothered me as a historian. I've wondered why there are so few, if any, really successful historical films and it's the political ingredient, you're suggesting?
- Yes, it is. It's because they deal in these broad terms. If you get films like The Young Mister Pitt or films about – I suppose they have broken out now and again, because they've made so theatrical-like – George Arliss' Disraeli. There have been exceptions, but in the main, you see, your historical picture is, in a sense, costume-wise, superficial.
I am astonished to discover that we have used up all of our time on this programme. That is what it is to have a conversation with Alfred Hitchcock. Thank you very much!
- Thank you.
Although I don't really want you to stop!
- Alfred Hitchcock, Ben Hecht, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Cornell Woolrich, Encyclopædia Britannica (1965) - On Film Production, François Truffaut, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, J.M. Barrie, James Bond, James Mason, James Stewart, Joan Harrison, John Galsworthy, Keith Berwick, Leo G. Carroll, Lifeboat (1944), MacGuffin, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Mary Rose, North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Spellbound (1945), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Topaz (1969), University of London, London